Second Republic Governor of old Anambra State and one of the founders of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Senator Jim Nwobodo, is one who usually assimilates issues carefully before speaking on them. He has, therefore, condemned the last week classification of Southeast governors as ‘weak’ in a Sunday Sun interview by elder statesman, Chief Mbazulike Amaechi, arguing that the governors are instead being tactical.
The widely acclaimed politician of the progressive hue who recently turned 80 said that it would gladden his heart to see the actualisation of a Nigerian President of Igbo extraction come 2023. Nwobodo said that Nigerian leaders from all sections of the country are already working towards actualising that.
He spoke about his role over two decades ago when he sought for the presidential ticket of the PDP at the Jos, Plateau State Convention of the party alongside former Vice President Alex Ekwueme; an action many felt he took to sabotage another Igbo man.
But he said that he did not betray Ekwueme, insisting that he contested to win. The former minister also talked about his relationship with Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and northern politicians. Excerpt:
First Republic Minister of Aviation, Chief Mbazulike Amaechi in a recent interview said that the Southeast governors are weak. What’s your take on his statement?
I take exception to that remark, the Southeast governors are not weak at all; they’re sensible, they’re intelligent; very well behaved. I seriously oppose that statement and I think they likewise oppose it because they’re not weak. If they’re weak, we won’t be having a reconstructed international airport; this shows that they’re wise because today in Nigeria, Akanu Ibiam International Airport Enugu is one of the best airports in the country. I want to disagree with him entirely; what they are doing is applying wisdom, applying tactics and the sense of oneness by not attacking anybody. So, that international airport makes nonsense of whatever Mbazulike Amaechi is saying and I expect him in future, to be careful about the kind of statements he makes because as an elder statesman, his statement should bring peace, should exude wisdom and not attacking people.
We think his statement was in relation to the handling of security in the region…?
Exactly, but I think the security of the Southeast is paramount in our minds and the same for the governors. I know that they’re already talking about security and what they’ve done so far may not be entirely agreeable to everybody, but in the interest of our people, they’ve adopted a reasonable attitude to the security. They were not involved in the reported killing of 21 people at Emene, Enugu. And secondly, those people having been killed, there’s nothing we can gain by shouting and quarrelling at everybody. Because what he’s asking is for them to confront the security agencies, I don’t know the story and he doesn’t know the story either. But I think that it’s unfair to put the blame on the governors.
What is your position concerning the Emene killings?
The killings are not what should be commended, but there must be a reason, either based on false information or what the security people were told. I feel very bad that 21 young men were killed, something we’re not sure about. I can’t condone it.
What about your reaction to Chief Mbazulike Amaechi’s advice that the Igbo must align with the North for the 2023 Presidency even as he warned that the problem of the Southeast would start from home?
Talking about the North, if there’s anybody who knows the North, it is me – Jim Nwobodo. I was born in the North, I schooled there, I know their language and I worked with them and I know that we need them. When they wanted the presidency, they came to the East and spoke to us and we supported. There are many northerners whom I know very well who have said that it’s the turn of the Southeast to produce the president of Nigeria in 2023. In fact, a Yoruba man, Chief Ebenezer Babatope has declared his support for the Southeast. I feel there are people who believe in equity, justice and fairness; they all say it should go to the Southeast. Not only that, Balarabe Musa, Tanko Yakassai and many others from the North have said that it’s the turn of the Southeast; everybody is clamouring for it for us to have fairness, peace and justice.
Amaechi expressed the fear that the Igbo might be the stumbling block to the Igbo aspiration…?
In what way? Let me address him. He said that Alex Ekwueme would have been president, but that I betrayed him. That word betrayal is very unkind; he’s not more Igbo than me in anyway. Mbazulike has not been in government; he hasn’t governed. There’s no question of betrayal when I ran against Ekwueme, Obasanjo, Asiodu and Etiebet in 1998 for PDP’s presidential candidacy as Mbazulike wants people to believe. Mbazulike was not a member of PDP. The point is that there was no forum where the Igbo came together to say that Ekwueme should go and run for presidency for the Igbo. Mbazulike should say where any decision like that was made. Did he chair it? I was prepared to run and be president of Nigeria. Although Ekwueme was older than me, I joined party politics at the same time with him during the Second Republic. While Ekwueme could not win the party gubernatorial primaries of NPN in the old Anambra State in 1979, I won mine in NPP and went on to become governor supported by Zik. Ekwueme in his own party went on to be picked as Shehu Shagari’s running mate to run against Zik and they won and he became Vice President. I had been a Minister and a Senator. Before these times, I was a known student union politician. I was General Secretary of the Students Union in University of Ibadan. At the time I declared my intention to run for president under PDP, no other aspirant had done that. Obasanjo was still in prison. In fact, Ekwueme knew my ambition before the formation of PDP. That’s why he went without consultation with us, leaders of PDP from the Southeast, to singlehandedly pick Okwesilieze Nwodo from Enugu State as National Secretary of PDP instead of Chuba Okadigbo who was very much interested in the position. He did that to block my chances in case the party zoned presidency to the Southeast. His reasoning was that since Enugu had taken a national position, it would not be fair to give another Enugu person the presidential candidate. So, he denied Chuba Okadigbo from their own state, Anambra the opportunity of becoming the first National Secretary of PDP to enhance his own chance as a presidential aspirant. Because of what he did to Chuba Okadigbo without even consulting Chuba himself, Chuba swore to him in everyone’s presence at the Rock View Hotel, the venue of the mini PDP convention that he would never support Ekwueme’s presidential ambition for treating him, Chuba that way. Ekwueme was eminently qualified, no doubt, but I was also well qualified and had all the progressives in the party from all over the country behind me. It is noteworthy that we the progressives had taken over the party and had our structures spread all over the national zones. No matter all the noise that was made in the media then, I was set to clinch the ticket through the progressives before Obasanjo was released from prison into PDP to run. Obasanjo’s entry swayed the whole interest because of June 12 and the need to address the unrest in the nation as it was in the Southwest then. A lot of us, including Ekwueme knew this. The general thing was to give the Southwest a chance that even Ogbonnaya Onu, another Igbo man that won the primaries of the APP had to step aside for Olu Falae of AD to run on APP platform as the joint candidate of the two parties to make it possible for candidates from Southwest zone only to run for president. With that June 12 sentiment and the need for the military to diffuse the tension, we all knew what the outcome would be. I look at it as mischievous when people knew these facts and yet want to skew narratives to deceive the gullible public. If we must build a formidable front to achieve equity for the Igbo in Nigeria, elders must eschew careless talks that could breed unnecessary bitter rivalries among the Igbo. I am shocked that a person like Mbazulike would get into an issue that’s so glaring just to make unfounded claims of betrayal against me when he was not involved in any way in the happenings of those years. He has also forgotten that Ekwueme ran for PDP presidential primaries again in 2003 when I ran under UNPP and he lost.
Meaning that you were aware that Ekwueme’s aspiration wouldn’t work?
Truth is when you reach a certain level, you don’t just talk anyhow. I want to tell my Anambra brothers that it wasn’t a decision made by Jim Nwobodo; the military were in power and they needed to appease the Yoruba. MKO Abiola had been killed because of the presidency and his wife Kudirat too; General Oladipo Diya was in prison because of the presidency. They told the party leadership and leading delegates that the best thing to do to appease the Yoruba was allowing a Yoruba man to be president. If you watched very carefully, Ogbonnaya Onu, like I said earlier, was elected the presidential candidate of their party, APP in Kaduna, but because they had resolved to allow a Yoruba man to be president, they gave it to Olu Falae from AD. So, in the PDP, we gave it to Obasanjo and the reason they gave us was that Obasanjo is one of their own and would be the best person to put the military in check. They claimed that after Obasanjo that there will be no military coup again in Nigeria and he succeeded in doing it. What Obasanjo did was that every military man, irrespective of his rank, who had tasted political office was weeded out of the military. So, Mbazulike was talking totally out of ignorance. Our people talk too much, we carry wrong information and we spread it as if it’s truth. There was no way Ekwueme would have won the primaries because of this reason. They talked to delegates who in turn understood the need to go for the candidate from Southwest and Obasanjo met all that was required at that time to bring back peace to the nation.
What about what Mbazulike Amaechi said that Owelle Nnamdi Azikiwe was supposed to run as President in 1979 with Shehu Shagari as vice before you and your team changed the whole thing?
That’s not true. It was absolutely falsehood. Zik was being wooed by the NPN and NPP was also wooing him. Later, they brought him to the NPN and said they will make him a patron of the party. So, some of us who were in NPP said no, Zik should not just be a patron, he’s still young enough to contest. We had NPP primaries in Lagos where Waziri Ibrahim was elected our candidate, but he wanted to be both the candidate and the National Chairman of the party. And we said no, that he must take one, but he said no. So, we walked out from the stadium and went to Demola Thomas’ house where we were with Adeniran Ogunsaya, TOS Benson and others. Then we said we had somebody we could field as president, why go begging somebody like Waziri who said he would be party chairman and presidential candidate at the same time. We agreed that evening and that we’ll go for Zik; and I sponsored it because I was in a position to do that. He didn’t know what was happening; all of us from the then 19 states, we went to see Zik in Nsukka. And I want Mbazulike to at his age make statements that are truthful; I take exception to the way he was calling my name. I met him in Club-19 (the political association that metamorphosed into NPP) with Chief B.C. Okwu. Who called me to Club-19; it was M.T. Mbu. He called me and said Jim; ‘go and organise our party in Club-19’ and Mbazulike was there with Chief B. C. Okwu. We travelled from Enugu to Lagos and TOS Benson told Mbazulike ‘sorry you can’t run our party, you don’t have the wherewithal to run the party. Allow somebody who can afford it to run the party’. In fact, it was he (Mbazulike) who led those who were abusing Zik.
At what point did he lead the attack on Zik?
At the point Zik became our candidate because we unanimously conceded the presidential ticket to Zik. So, at no point did I betray Igbo – I didn’t betray Zik; I didn’t betray Ekwueme rather it was Mbazulike who betrayed Zik because he left the party and joined NPN. When I joined Club-19, it was not doing well, but I supplied everything needed and brought life into it. Mark you at that time that we had giants like C.C. Onoh who was in NPN. Zik was in NPP, I was in NPP, Mbakwe, RBK Okafor and others. Ekwueme was in NPN with Nwakamma Okoro, K.O. Mbadiwe and others. It was when we took the party, NPP; then Waziri went there late to take it back and they told him no, that it had been taken over by us. Dr. Omo Omoruyi by then was our secretary, he registered NPP. It was then that Waziri formed GNPP, Great Nigeria Peoples Party. So, there were five major parties then: NPN, UPN led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, NPP led by Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, GNPP led by Waziri and Aminu Kano’s PRP.
In that interview, Mbazulike Amaechi also said that Zik was to have another arrangement with the North in 1983 before you people thwarted it with the alliance of progressives. What actually happened?
That was total false. They could not have had any arrangement. What could they have had when Zik was our own leader and they had a sitting president going for a re-election? In fact, the only time that happened was in President Shagari’s first tenure when the three governors of NPP met after Shagari had been elected in 1979. We had gone to see Zik to intimate him about our negotiation to have a working relationship with the UPN. Zik called Shagari in our presence. I am disclosing this because it’s long ago; he called and told Shagari that his governors had met with the UPN; they wanted them to form a relationship. And Shagari just said, as you are talking, they (UPN) are right here negotiating with me. Zik just told us, you can see it, they’re negotiating with them and negotiating with us. So, we reneged on the negotiation with UPN. Then, the NPN now sent for us to have an accord – that was when we had NPN-NPP accord. Where was Mbazulike Amaechi then? That was the golden age for the Igbo, we had two ministers, we had Speaker of the House of Representatives and everything doubled for the Igbo. What role did Mbazulike play then and what did he get for the Igbo? I as a young man then and as governor of old Anambra State contributed greatly to get all these for the Igbo. I have achieved something concrete for the Igbo. So, if Mbazulike has any grouse with me, let him call me so that we resolve it. I don’t like the way he’s calling my name. Let me tell you something. Before I became governor, Zik and Awolowo had not talked to each other since 1962. As a governor, I arranged for a meeting between Awolowo and Zik. For the first time in many years, Zik and Awolowo met in my personal house in GRA Enugu around 1982. They ate dinner together and they moved from there to a rally where both of them spoke on one platform. That was when we really had a progressive movement in Nigeria. They were progressives and we were progressives. And that meeting began to worry the NPN and they said this meeting between Zik and Awo in my house could mean something else. So, our accord with the NPN became shaky and we had to blow it. That time the progressive governors became very strong and I tell you even though NPN had the Federal Government, they had nine governors, but the opposition made up of UPN, NPP, GNPP and PRP had 10. But let me point out something; any group that wants the presidency needs the North, needs West, the East and South-south. I want a president of Igbo stock who will unite the whole country. I want one that would be friendly with the Igbo, Yoruba, friendly with the northerners and South-south; a president that would carry all Nigerians along. I don’t want a sectional president that will divide the country and I have been telling them, give the Igbo the opportunity to produce the president. I know they will do that because the Igbo have always wanted one Nigeria.
Having been in government and also as political party manager, what would you say is the reason we have the kind of organisations we have today as parties?
Shortly before I became a minister, I got married and my best man was a Fulani man from Kano – Abubakar Rimi; we went to church together and everybody really saw one Nigeria. If I was with Yoruba, we see ourselves as one. But today, what worries me is that politics is now based on tribe and religion. That’s really unfortunate. We didn’t know all these because most of my friends were Moslems; we had a fine country and all these herdsmen thing was not there. So, the problem with today’s political parties is because the process through which party officials emerged was wrong. There is nothing like internal democracy in the parties today. In those days; we had very transparent, clean and credible primaries. Those who won, won neatly and when people lost, those who lost would go over and shake or embrace those who won. We are seeing it today in Nigeria; those who became party leaders in crooked process are being chased away. But where the process is right, everything moves smoothly. Everywhere in the world where you have untainted democracy, it is because there is internal party democracy that gives rise to transparent and credible primaries.